There is a certain magic about walking into a new exhibit. A sense of mystery, surprise, and discovery greet you as you turn each corner. Thousands of visitors come to the Fort Ticonderoga’s museum exhibits each year, and many are impressed when they see a space completely redesigned and reinterpreted in the short months between the end of one season and the beginning of the next. But what happens in those months when the doors to the exhibit are closed off to the public? Let’s take a closer look behind-the-scenes! After the last visitor exits the gallery on the last day of an exhibit, the collection and exhibition teams move into action. In the fall of 2015, we took down the major exhibit: Founding Fashion: The Diversity of Regularity in 18th-Century Military Clothing; the following pictures are all behind-the-scenes shots from this de-installation.
A collections team has to be organized. Ideally, each object has a record in the digitized collections database—the museum uses the latest version of PastPerfect—that include when the museum acquired the object, the description and date, condition information, and where it is housed when not on display. These records offer a glimpse at not only the historical importance of an object, but also its institutional history: when and where it has been on display, if there has been any conservation work done, if it has been published or not, and photographs that show the condition of the object over time. Each of the hundreds of objects on display has special handling and storage needs based off the age, materials, and condition. The collections database is a place where a conversation about individual object needs can be discussed.
First, the object prep area was created. We used tables covered with conservation blankets and an extra table for packing supplies such as; acid-free tissue paper, twill tape, ethafoam, and acid-free hanging tags for creating new labels where they were needed. Staff members inspected each object for any changes to the object’s condition since it went on display.
Here, our team inspects the late-1760s Phineas Jakeways coat before housing it in its acid-free box. They used unbuffered acid-free tissue paper to pad out the areas where the textile wants to fold or crease—such as in the sleeves, and at the bottom of the coat—to reduce stress to the garment in storage. This is especially important for very large textiles, such as quilts and blankets, that often have very fragile areas where they have been folded in the same place for decades—or centuries! Instead of storing our 1770s “GR” wool blanket in an over-sized box with lots of tissue padding it out, we rolled the entire piece on a large acid-free roll. Once rolled, the entire tube is covered in muslin to protect the blanket from any dust. By rolling large textiles, we spend better economical use of our storage space in addition to better preserving the object itself—a win-win!
The team wore nitrile gloves when handling the Boston Independent Company of Cadets coat (c. 1772-1774) to prevent the invisible oils on our hands from making contact with the original silver-foil buttons. The oils on our hands contain acids, lipids, proteins and sugars that can permanently etch into a metal surface, ruining a metal’s finish.
Alec and Matt also backed each button with a small coin of tissue paper to further reduce the constant contact of metal to cloth in storage. Notice that Margaret wore gloves when handling the silver gorget as she moves it from its display to its storage box. Small preventative measures such as these can make a big difference over the long life of an object that is already over 200 years old!
One of the biggest challenges during the de-installation of Founding Fashion was working with the hundreds of buttons, needles, buckles, and other small archaeological pieces that are part of the museum’s renowned archaeological collection.
Two team members were devoted just to the organization and re-housing of these pieces, which included detective-work going back into the records to determine exactly which bag, tray, and box each individual piece needed to be returned to. As we mentioned before, a collections team has to be organized!
Each box was carefully packed for the journey to the storage facility where the boxes returned to their home locations and the database records updated. In some ways, the beginning of an exhibit’s lifecycle comes during the end of another one. Even though one exhibit was over, the next one was just beginning! For a collections team, there is a constant balance of preparing for future exhibits, working on current exhibits, and recording information from previous exhibits. We will explore a behind –the-scenes look at the efforts that go into preparing objects for a new exhibit in our next blog post on The Lifecycle of an Exhibit.